Once upon a time there lived a man and his wife, who much wished to have a child, but for a long time in vain. These people had a little window in the back part of their house, out of which one could see into a beautiful garden, which was full of fine flowers and vegetables; but it was surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go in, because it belonged to a Witch who possessed great power, and who was feared by the whole world. One day the woman stood at a window looking into the garden, and there she saw a bed which was filled with the most beautiful radishes, and which seemed so fresh and green that she felt quite glad; and a great desire seized her to eat of these radishes—Rapunzel
Once Upon a Time
Years later, even when the memory of his first child was faint and many more clamored about him for food and toys and attention, The Man regretted ever making that deal with The Witch: a baby given away, his child's life to save is wife's.
It had started out like this:
The Man and his wife were consummating their marriage. Breath became ragged, clothes fell off, and they tumbled onto the bed, a tangle of limbs. He was on her, in her. They moved together in a sort of frenzied rhythm, and then—
But that's not where it really started. Not really. The beginning was more like this:
"Radishes! Fresh radishes for sale!"
The Woman peered out the window of her kitchen and saw an old crone, stooped under the weight of a basket laden with the vegetables she was peddling. Feeling sorry for the poor creature, The Woman called out, "How much for your radishes?"
The crone raised her head, replying in a voice surprisingly strong, "Thirty coppers for the whole lot."
The Woman raised her eyebrow. "Thirty coppers for the entire basket? Do you sell it in a lesser amount?"
"I've been peddling vegetables all day, my dear, and everybody so far has bought an entire basket. This is my last one. Look, and tell me if they aren't the freshest, most beautiful radishes you've ever seen." She pulled out a rather magnificent specimen; it was large, with a deep red color that reminded The Woman of a rich, full wine. She decided that thirty coppers wouldn't beggar her, and besides, they did look rather appetizing.
"I'll take it," she said, fumbling at the strings of her money pouch. "Could you bring it to the window, please, and I'll give you the money. I'm afraid I'm not in much of a position to come out right now."
The older woman readily agreed, and as she handed the basket through the window to The Woman, remarked, "You're pregnant, I see."
The Woman sighed. "Yes, and it's my first one. I never thought it'd be this awkward; nothing my mother ever taught me involved learning how to maneuver around the house with a belly as round as a barrel."
"You'll get used to it, especially after the first two or so. You're hoping for a boy, I suppose?"
"Yes, of course."
"I wouldn't mind a boy or a girl," the crone said, taking the money The Woman handed to her and tucking it away in a fold of her cloak.
"Did you ever have any children?"
"Once, a long time ago, I had three sons and a daughter. But they all died in the Plague, and my husband with them."
The Woman clucked in sympathy. "I was only a child during the Plague; I don't remember much about it."
"A terrible time, it was." The crone turned and started hobbling away, still stooped despite having been relieved of the basket. "A terrible time," she repeated, and a tinge of immense sadness, bordering on despair, crept into her voice. "Not so much the Plague, but the loss of loved ones. I pray that nothing like that ever befalls you."
"I thank you for your kindness," The Woman said, sincerely, pitying the old woman even more, "and I pray that you will still find some happiness in this life."
"Oh, I will, I will," the crone called over her shoulder. "Happiness is never out of reach for those who are not afraid to grab it when it is presented to them."
"Look," The Woman said proudly when The Man came in from the fields. "Look at this salad; don't you think it looks delicious?"
"It looks wonderful, dear, but I'm too tired to eat it right now."
"Suit yourself," and The Woman set to, heartily.
Neither of them could have expected what came next. It started with The Woman complaining of the heat in the room, something The Man put down to the whims of pregnancy. Then it progressed until it became a fever, very real and hardly a whim at all.
They both didn't know what to do. On The Man's part, he had never had any experience with healing. On The Woman's part, she was much too delirious to be aware of anything that was going on. But both of them realized that if this fever continued, there was a chance, too large to be ignored, that the baby would be lost.
The Man didn't know if it was a curse or a blessing that The Witch showed up as The Woman was on the brink of death.
Of course, there was no knowing that The Witch was, in fact, a witch. To The Man, she was a healer, a godsend at the time. But there was nothing divine about this intervention.
"I will heal her," The Witch announced, "for a price."
"I do not have much money," The Man muttered, "but whatever you demand, I will do my best to pay it. Please, help her."
"Very well. My price is…this child that is about to be born."
The Man could only gaze at her, dumbfounded. "You want my child?" he asked, disbelieving. "Come now, do not jest."
"I do not. Promise me the child, and I will heal your wife."
The Man began to fume. "My wife is lying there, dying, and you have the gall to stand there and jest that you want my child in exchange for your services?"
"I do not jest. Give me the child, and I will heal your wife." It was a simple offer, easy to understand, impossible to accept.
"Get out," The Man demanded. "Get out. I will find another healer. I will find somebody else to care for my wife. Get out!"
"There is nobody else who can cure her," The Witch said calmly. She walked out the door she had walked into so recently, called by The Man when she had announced her status as a healer.
She knew she would be crossing its threshold once again, soon.
True to The Witch's word, there was no healer, in this village or the next, who could heal The Woman. It was, they all declared, hopeless. She was fated to die; so Heaven decreed, and The Man must make do as well as he could. Perhaps he should find another wife, they counseled.
Long after he had chased the last healer away, The Man sat down at the table in their kitchen, head in his arms. The thought that he had fought so hard to keep at bay began to gnaw at him. What was it to him, really, this unborn child? It did not even exist yet. He did not know if it was boy or girl; he did not know if the child would run and laugh and be mischievous, or be frail and sickly, destined to nothing but a life by the hearth. He did not know anything about this creature. It would be nothing to give it away.
But it, he, she—the child was his, conceived by him, carried by his wife. The child was his, and between them there was a bond, the kind of bond that only blood of blood, flesh of flesh, could create. But still—his wife. Was she not also a part of him, joined by marriage? Was she not there, right now, writhing on their bed and moaning in pain? Whose loss would he feel more acutely, he wondered, his living wife who laughed and teased him and grew calluses on her gentle lady's hands working in the fields during harvest time? Or the unborn child who had no name, no face, no place yet carved in his heart?
It is better, he thought wearily, to lose only one life than two. And the child's life would not be lost, really. It would leave, yes. But it would be taken care of. He should give it this chance to live, and not condemn it to die with its mother. Better to have life than nothing, he thought.
He faced The Witch wearily when she appeared at his doorstep later that evening, almost as if by magic. "I will give you the child," he said without any prompting. "If you will save my wife."
"I will," The Witch promised. "I always keep my end of the bargain."
"Take care of the child," The Man said, softly.
"I will take care of him as if he were my own son."
The Man did not question how The Witch knew with so much certainty of the child's sex.
But how to explain this exchange? How to explain The Witch's need for a child, or The Woman's fever? For they are connected. Without one, there would not be the other.
The Witch was not always The Witch. She had a name once, Dame Gothel. She had a husband once, too. And she had children, three boys and a girl, just as she had told The Woman. They had all died in The Plague, that much was true.
But she did not tell The Woman of her failed attempts to bring them all back to life; she never told anyone of the many hours she spent poring over books and manuscripts. She never told of the nights spent in graveyards and marshes and forests. She never told of the desecrated graves, ransacked lovingly for the needed ingredients. She never told of the hundred and one attempts she made, first her entire family and then, as she realized that she could only command enough of the spell to bring back one person, of the choice she made. She did not tell that she chose her son, her eldest one, with his long blonde hair and his laughing blue eyes. She never told of him, or of the home she had burnt down when nothing had worked.
What is there to tell of failure?
Fate, or destiny, or her own two feet brought her from village to village. Always she saw happy families, with one child or two or even a dozen. But always there was a child, and she would remember with a pang her own children and most of all her eldest son.
It was only when she came to The Man and The Woman's village that she thought, And why should not one of these children be mine? She thought that as she saw The Man and The Woman in the market, saw the bulge that was beginning to expand the waistline of The Woman.
They were a fine couple, The Man and The Woman. Both handsome, in their own way. The Man was a farmer's son, with hair bleached light by work in the fields, skin roughened by sun and the weather. He had big hands, big feet; a large man, but finely made, still, with a firm mouth and gentle eyes. The Woman was of an aristocratic family; her blood showed in her proud nose, in her shapely hands and tall slender neck. She was fair where The Man was dark, with flawless porcelain skin and eyes a brilliant blue.
Oh, those eyes. They drew The Man to her that day in the market when he had first seen her, standing in the doorway of her father's house. She watched everything keenly, and met his gaze boldly. There was no lowering of the lashes, no shy ducking of the head. She stared back at him until he, embarrassed, looked down.
"Come here," she called, imperious with the air of those who are used to command.
There were those in the market who looked at her disapprovingly. A young woman did not stand at the doorway to her father's house, exposed like that for any young rogue's eyes. A young woman did not look right back at a man who was impertinent enough to let his eyes linger on her for longer than was courteous. And a young woman certainly did not dare to summon that man to her, to actually speak to him without even knowing his name.
But The Man ignored those disapproving gazes. He was embarrassed; he was mortified, to have to walk past them. But, he thought, he would walk through hellfire for those eyes that challenged him as he stood in front of her, trying not to twist his hands. "Hello," he said, unable to think of anything appropriate to say to such a young lady.
"Hello," she returned, and she smiled at his obvious discomfort. "What were you looking at me for?"
He flinched at such unexpected forwardness. "I—I was not looking. I was merely…merely admiring your house."
"Is that so?" she asked. "And what do you find most interesting about my house? Its roof, with its shingles exactly like every other roof in town? Its windows, with glass panes such as those you see in the bakery? Or maybe it is the color itself; drab white is very striking, I hear."
He couldn't help but laugh. "You are very outspoken for a young lady."
"Then you should be very outspoken for a young man, and tell me what it was you were really looking at."
The Man confessed, "It was you," he said, shyly. "I thought you looked very…very beautiful standing here, and that your eyes—"
"Go on," she prompted him. There was no vanity in her command, only a sense of curiosity to know.
"And that your eyes look like shards of the sky on a clear, cloudless day," The Man mumbled, now twice as embarrassed. He had never been much of a poet. Always he had spoken of things in plain words, because what was there to embellish about crops and animals and the fertile land? And now here he stood, in front of a young lady he was sure was of a noble house, comparing her eyes to the sky.
She did not laugh at him. "You have a way with words," she said, and smiled. "But I do not think you use that gift very often."
"No," he murmured. "I am a farmer, not a poet." He waited for her to gasp a little in surprise, or to tell him that oh, since he was only a farmer what was he doing here talking to her?
But she only asked, "What is it like, working on the land?"
And he found himself telling her about himself, about the land he worked on, about the small cottage he lived in. The flowers in spring and the hard work of bringing in crops. Everything he had always known, he now found words for, and she drank them all in.
And so they fell in love.
It was not so easy, trying to introduce their parents to this new concept. A farmer, in love with a woman of fine blood? It was not unheard of, but marriage between the two certainly was. The Woman's father was against the marriage because The Man was, after all, only the son of a farmer, even if he was a well-to-do one. The Man's father was against the marriage because of what use would a woman of fine breeding be on the land? Could she cook? Could she clean? Could she work at the harvest time, when the men were hard pressed and needed all the help they could get? Or would she only sit at home and admire herself in brass mirrors, trying on this and that fancy dress, and demanding for more? A woman of fine breeding was a useless ornament, not needed to adorn the simplicity of country life.
But old traditions wear down before young love, and The Man and The Woman were soon married. They moved into a cottage of their own, a cozy small affair out in the country where they set hard to work, beginning to build a life for themselves.
The Woman learned to take care of the house without servants, to work on the land. It was hard, dirty, menial, but she looked forward to it. It was time spent with The Man, her husband, and not only that but it was freedom from the constraints of her former life. She loved to work hard to earn her living, she loved the feel of dirt on her hands and to wear a soiled dress without somebody scolding her for being unladylike. She loved the sound of The Man's voice as he said, lovingly, "No, no, not like this, like this," and placed his hands over hers on the plow.
She loved him and it was a disappointment that, year after year, they had no child. So it seemed to her that it was a miracle when, finally, her dress began to tighten around the waist, and she found she was with child. It was a miracle, she thought gleefully, that they were finally going to have a child, a child created out of their love. She hoped the child would be a boy.
The Witch, watching them as they came and went from the markets, hoped that it was a boy as well.
The Woman could not understand what had happened. "You promised our child to her," she said, numbly. "You promised our first child to that woman."
"She was the only one who could heal you," The Man tried to explain. "Nobody else could do anything. She was the only one, and she would not agree unless I promised her this child."
"But it cannot be true. It cannot be. She cannot have been the only one. You lie, you lie—" But even as she protested she remembered countless hands, hands that went with voices that clucked, disapprovingly, and said, "She will not make it. We cannot do anything." She remembered that through the haze of her fever and the countless hands, there had been one pair. One pair only that had soothed the aches and pains, and had forced the heat of the fever to ebb away. "She cannot be the only one," she said, knowing that it was true.
Five months. Five months until The Man and The Woman lost a child, and Dame Gothel gained one. Five months too short. Five months too long.
The Woman went into labor one day, and the pain was more than she could have ever imagined. It was terrible. But the pair of hands that tended to her, that guided her through the child bearing, was familiar, terribly so. It brought her child through safely, it led her through the entire ordeal. But she knew, she knew. It was going to take her child away, as well.
The child came at last, bawling at the top of his lungs, as if he knew what his fate was to be. The Witch bathed him, The Witch wrapped him in swaddling, The Witch cradled him in her arms, tenderly. The Woman was asleep, passed out from fatigue and the herbs given to her to dull the pain. The Man watched from the doorway as The Witch cooed at the child, and admired his blue eyes. "Like the sky they are," she murmured, and The Man remembered once, long ago, how he had told his wife that her eyes were like shards of the sky on a clear, cloudless day. He wished he could see this child's eyes, but The Witch was holding him so possessively. He was already hers.
Oh, my child, he though wearily. I am sorry.
Afterwards, The Woman was never able to look at radishes again without feeling the need to vomit. It must have been something in those radishes that had made her so ill. That crone, that hag, she thought violently, must have done something to them in order to make her so ill.
But what it was she never knew. The Witch could have told her, if she had wanted. A poison rubbed onto every radish, one concocted by The Witch herself: a poison to induce fever and pain, a poison that only The Witch had the antidote to.
A poison created to gain a child.
The beginning quote is from Grimm's Fairy Tales, the Barnes&Noble edition.